Health officials are urging everyone over six months old to get their flu vaccine as soon as possible to help avoid another nasty season. And to encourage needle-phobic kids to get immunized, a leading pediatric group is softening its insistence that they get it in a shot rather than a painless nose spray.
“Preferentially, we want kids to get the shot,” said Dr. Wendy Sue Swanson, a Seattle pediatrician and spokeswoman for the American Academy of Pediatrics. “Secondarily, if the child is healthy and over age 2, they can go ahead and have the nasal spray.”
That’s right, kids. If you dread the needle, impress your parents by letting them know you’d prefer the “intranasal live attenuated influenza vaccine” — and the American Academy of Pediatrics which had not recommended the spray for the last two seasons, says it’s better than nothing.
Bert Kelly, spokesman for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said Tuesday that the CDC isn’t advising any preference for one form of flu vaccine or another.
“The most important thing is for all people 6 months and older to get a flu vaccine every year,” Kelly said. “If you have questions about which vaccine is best for you, talk to your doctor or other health care professional.”
Last flu season was a nasty one. According to the Academy of Pediatrics, the 2017–2018 season ranks as the third most severe since 2003–2004, and was the first to be classified as high severity for all age groups.
“It was a busy year,” Santa Clara County Health Officer Dr. Sara Cody said Tuesday. She urged people to get their flu shots by Halloween so the vaccine has time to build their body’s immunity. “Basically, everybody needs it.”
Excluding the 2009 pandemic, the 179 pediatric deaths reported through Aug. 18, 2018 — half of which occurred in otherwise healthy kids — are the highest reported since 2004 when influenza-associated pediatric deaths started being reported nationally, the Academy of Pediatrics said.
How effective is this year’s vaccine? Impossible to say right now, Cody said, because the flu season hasn’t kicked in. But she and other health officials say even a vaccine that’s poorly matched to the dominant flu strain is better than nothing at all.
“Last season, it wasn’t as good,” Cody said. “But what’s important to remember is that even if the virus that’s circulating is not well matched, you can still get some benefit from the vaccine. So even if you are vaccinated and still get ill, you’ll probably be less ill than had you not been vaccinated. It does prevent hospitalizations and death.”
The Academy of Pediatrics did not recommend the nasal spray in the last two seasons because of inconsistent effectiveness. This year, it is advising “limited use” of the spray “for children who would not otherwise receive an influenza vaccine (and for whom it is appropriate by age and health status).”
Flu season typically peaks in the U.S. between December and February, the CDC said, and can last as late as May. Symptoms include fever, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, body aches, headaches, chills, fatigue, and sometimes diarrhea and vomiting.
“Most people who are ill with the flu can take care of themselves at home,” Cody said. “The most important thing is that they stay hydrated and don’t pass the infection to others. When you’re sick, stay home, don’t be a hero.”
Regular hand-washing and covering a cough or sneeze helps prevent the virus’ spread, Cody said. Most health plans have advice nurses on call who can help patients and their families decide if they need to see a doctor. Symptoms that would raise a concern include shortness of breath, chest pain and a fever that doesn’t respond to over-the-counter medications.
Cody noted that flu vaccinations are widely available — most drug store pharmacies now offer them — and they are generally covered by insurance.
“There should be no barrier,” Cody said, “to getting the vaccine.”